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Archive for November, 2003


Thursday, November 20th, 2003

“An appeals court this week put the brakes on an FBI surveillance technique that turns an automobile driver’s on-board vehicle navigation system into a covert eavesdropping device,” according to SecurityFocus.
“The case arose from a 2001 FBI surveillance operation in Las Vegas, in which agents obtained a court order compelling a telematics company to secretly activate the stolen vehicle recovery feature in a customer’s car. The feature, designed to listen-in on car thieves as they cruise around in a stolen auto, turns on a dashboard microphone and pipes conversations out over a cellphone connection — normally to the company’s response center, but in this case to an FBI listening post. “
THERE’S MORE: Congress yesterday gave the FBI “greater authority to demand records from businesses in terrorism cases without the approval of a judge or a grand jury,” the Times reports. “While banks, credit unions and other financial institutions are currently subject to such demands, the measure expands the list to include car dealers, pawnbrokers, travel agents, casinos and other businesses.“
AND MORE: The New York Police Department yesterday became the first group of local cops to have access to Interpol’s 80-country criminal database.


Thursday, November 20th, 2003

550 miles per hour is too slow. And a 1,500-mile range just isn’t big enough.
The Tomahawk cruise missile may seem fast and far-reaching. But Pentagon planners want more. Late last week, they handed out contracts to 10 firms to start designing a hypersonic missile that can outrun the now-retired Concorde, and can hit a terrorist nest in Europe from the East Coast.
The Falcon, or Force Application and Launch from the Continental United States, project aims to fire a bunker-busting bomb into near-space, and then send it crashing into a target more than 3,000 miles away, at four times the speed of sound.
Speed is becoming an increasingly crucial component of how American forces fight. In the Gulf War, it took days for the U.S. military to identify a target and put a bomb on it. In recent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, that process was cut to as little as 20 minutes, in some cases.
But this quick response only happens when there are bombers and cruise missiles in the immediate neighborhood. If U.S. forces receive a tip that terrorists are in a part of the world where they don’t have American planes in the sky, it can take hours, or days, to act on that information.
With its proposed speed and range, the Falcon project — co-sponsored by the Air Force and Darpa, the Pentagon’s research arm — aims to make just about the whole world a dangerous place to be a bad guy.
“When Osama’s bad brother Larry shows up suddenly in Niger, this is something we can target him with immediately,” said Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
My Wired News article has details on the Falcon effort.
THERE’S MORE: A German missile systems company, Lenkflugkrpersysteme, “has for the first time conducted a test firing of a hypersonic missile surpassing Mach 7,” says Jane’s International Defence Review. “But the firing, on 23 October at Germany’s Meppen proving range, may be the last in LFK’s hypersonic missile development program now that the German defense ministry has withdrawn all funding as of January 2004, the company’s new technologies and studies chief engineer Peter Gleich has told IDR.” An LFK press release about the event is here.
AND MORE: In the 60’s, Defense Tech pal Jim Lewis notes, the U.S. built a drone that could go Mach 3 — and even flew it over China a few times.
AND MORE: Air Force forecasters predict that by 2015, America’s foes will be able to keep most U.S. planes 250–300 nautical miles away. That’s one of the reasons that Air Force is so keen on Falcon, according to a recent Inside the Air Force report.


Wednesday, November 19th, 2003

The American counter-insurgency in Iraq is reaching new heights, the New York Times reports.
In Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit, “commanders called in AC-130 gunships, A-10 attack planes and Apache helicopter gunships, as well as Air Force F-16 and F-15E fighter-bombers with 500-pound bombs, the military said, in the largest bombardment in the area since President Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1.“
Meanwhile, U.S. forces called in air strikes “against targets in central Baghdad for the first time since the Spring,” Channel News Asia notes.
Major General Charles Swannack, who leads the 82nd Airborne, says the stepped-up offensive “demonstrates our resolve, and we are not going to fight this one with one hand tied behind our backs.“
But the Salt Lake City Tribune notes that “a top-secret CIA assessment from Iraq, widely reported last week, has warned that such aggressive counterinsurgency tactics by the army could incite more Iraqis to fight the Americans.“
With their gruesome acts, terrorist-type insurgent groups (think Hamas, or Peru’s Sendero Luminoso) traditionally try to provoke the government into ever-more repressive responses. The more heavy-handed the government is, the theory goes, the more the populace is radicalized, and the more ripe for revolution the area becomes.
Does that mean, then, the the U.S. offensive is playing into the bad guys’ hands? Do American military commanders have any other choice?
THERE’S MORE: On the other end of the tactical spectrum, “the decision to pull the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division out of the ‘Sunni Triangle’ city of Ramadi and to turn local security over to Iraqi officers might be the most significant step since the U.S.-led occupation began six and a half months ago,” Slate’s Fred Kaplan says. “If the Ramadi experiment succeeds, it could serve as the road map to a responsible exit strategy. If it fails, it will dramatize the depths of our predicament, the utter lack of good options, the tenacity of the dare we say it? quagmire that bogs us down.“
AND MORE: “The U.S. Air Force used some of the largest weapons in its inventory to attack targets in central Iraq,” according to the Associated Press.
“A pair of 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs were dropped late Tuesday near Baqouba, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, on ‘camps suspected to have been used for bomb-making,’ said Maj. Gordon Tate, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division.”


Tuesday, November 18th, 2003

The infamous “terror futures market” may be on its way back.
Starting in March, 2004, Net Exchange — the private firm that was one of the contractors on the initial Darpa project — will begin taking “investments” on world events. This time, however, no government money will be involved. And “violent acts” will be taboo, too.
(via Cursor)


Tuesday, November 18th, 2003

“If you’ve got a good idea” for how to take on terrorists, Darpa and the influential Defense Science Board write in e-mailed pleas, “turn it in as soon as possible because we’ve got the money” for new anti-evil doer technology.
Two areas are of particular interest, Aviation Week notes: detecting the improvised explosive devices being used to pick off U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and jamming the cell phones relied on to pass orders and trigger those explosives.
“The first few ground vehicle-mounted detection and jamming devices from Darpa have just been deployed in Iraq,” the magazine says. But the range of these is pretty limited.

“This is kind of sad,” a Navy official tells Aviation Week. “It can be perceived as a mark of desperation, and [with more timely investments] we shouldn’t have been put in that position.“
“Project Eyes,” mandated by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, is examining existing technologies to see if they can be applied quickly to the problem…
However, when asked if the Air Force in particular was organizationally prepared to shift its long-endurance intelligence-gathering resources to focus on the spreading terrorist threat in Iraq, a senior service official’s reply was pungent: “Hell, no. Out of all the Air Force task forces, not one is focused on counter-terrorism.”


Saturday, November 15th, 2003

Scientists, lead by the genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter, “have built a virus from scratch in only two weeks,” Nature reports. “It is the second virus to be synthesized from commercially available ingredients. The first — a poliovirus completed by Eckard Wimmer and his colleagues in 2002 — took three years to make.“
Defense Tech reader JB says Venter’s breakthrough shows that, not too long from now, “it will be a trivial exercise for a rogue government or other moderately scientifically sophisticated group to create modified organisms for use as terror weapons. The genomes of various pathogens are already known, and modification for increased virulence or communicability, or even vaccine/drug resistance, would be easily achievable with some targeted experimentation.“
The CIA, apparently, shared JB’s gloomy views.
“Growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects,” reads a CIA report, “The Darker Bioweapons Future.“
A few weeks ago, JB and Barbara Hatch Rosenberg form the Federation of American Scientists engaged in a semi-civil throwdown here at Defense Tech over the bioterror threat.


Friday, November 14th, 2003

The teams for Darpa’s “Grand Challenge” — the $1 million all-drone road race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas — are set, says UV Online. And despite fears that only university-backed megacrews would qualify for the mid-March ride, several of the little guys have made the final cut.
A team from Palos Verdes High School in California will be running. And so will Team LoGhIQ, the straight-out-of-college boys, profiled in this Wired News article of mine, who maxed out their credit cards to build their ‘bot.
Unfortunately, the way Darpa came to its decision is a little shady. First, the Challenge was open to all teams. Then, agency officials decided that only twenty teams could compete — and that they’d visit every drone-making site to decide which ones could run. Finally, they decided to pick 19 of the 20 teams, and only allow site visits to determine who got the final slot, and the five alternate positions.
Some teams, shut out of the process, say they’re going to start their own, “Civilian Grand Challenge,” to run side-by-side with Darpa’s race. But organizing the event with so little time is going to be pretty-damn-near impossible.
THERE’S MORE: The reason the Grand Challenge is such a big deal is that the drones won’t be able to talk to their human masters at all during the race.
Most of what are today called “autonomous” aerial or ground vehicles are, in fact, operated from a human being in another location — souped-up radio-controlled toys, in other words. Each Global Hawk UAV, for example, has two or three flesh-and-blood operators on the ground, plus a dozen people devoted to its maintennance, StrategyPage observes.
That’s why predictions of all-robot armies any time soon are so silly. And that’s why the Grand Challenge is such a big step.


Wednesday, November 12th, 2003

The money and the software, they didn’t touch. But thieves made off with an Israeli robotic helicopter prototype over the weekend, Globes reports.
The copter, made by the Israeli firm Steadicopter, was stolen a few days after its final tests flights, a company spokesman claims.
(via /.)


Wednesday, November 12th, 2003

“In a marked shift from previous assessments, the CIA said in a report released today that it is monitoring Syrian nuclear intentions with ‘growing concern,’” Global Security Newswire says.

The unclassified semiannual report, covering a period from Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year… (noted) continued Syrian-Russian agreements on nuclear cooperation and Damascuss expanded access to foreign nuclear-related expertise. Previous agency assessments of Syrian nuclear weapons efforts, however, do not describe U.S. interest in Syrian nuclear activities in such ominous language…
The CIA says that Syria continued during the first half of this year to seek foreign assistance to develop a solid-propellant rocket motor development and production capability. Syria has also relied on other nations, primarily North Korea, for assistance with its liquid-propelled missile program, the report says.
Concerning biological and chemical weapons, the report says that it is highly probable that Syria has continued to work to develop an offensive biological weapons capability and that Syria continues to seek foreign assistance and equipment for its chemical weapons program.

In equally grim news, today’s Newswire also reports that the “Iran has systematically concealed wide-ranging nuclear activities including the production of small amounts of plutonium and low-enriched uranium,” according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, “it is not clear whether the country has tried to develop a nuclear weapon.”


Wednesday, November 12th, 2003

“A U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory must replace up to 100,000 locks at a cost of more than $1.6 million, after staff lost several sets of master keys to the complex, then failed to notify superiors,” the Associated Press reports.

The extraordinary series of security blunders at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is outlined in a scathing report by the U.S. Energy Department’s inspector general.
According to the report, officials at the laboratory have lost nine master keys and three magnetic key cards to the top-secret research facility. In some cases, officials still do not know when or how the keys went missing.
In at least one instance, a loss only came to light after a locksmith blew the whistle on security officers who tried to have duplicate master keys made to replace a set they had lost. Such master keys are only entrusted to a handful of staff.

Awful stuff. But what’s truly creepy is that, in March, an almost identical incident went down at the government’s Sandia weapons lab.